Job and Genre: Why Poetry Is True (aka Lesson #32 “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth”) #BCCSundaySchool2018

“OK, that’s all good and stuff, but was Job a real person?”

That is the most frequent question that I have gotten from Latter-day Saints since I wrote a book about Job four years ago. This is apparently a really big concern for some people.

Here is the answer: “Probably not, and even if he was, there is no possible way that the Book of Job records an actual historical occurrence–and of all the questions that someone might ask about Job, the question of whether or not he was a real person is perhaps the least interesting and least important. Job is a poem, and poetry can be revelation and scripture as easily as journalism.”

That’s the short version of the book. Everything else is just filling in the details. What I want to do in the next few paragraphs, though, is fill in just enough of the details to fill an average 45 minute Gospel Doctrine lesson.

Genre Matters
We have to start with genre, and this will take an example. Imagine that you have just read a story with the following facts, which are agreed upon by everybody who is part of the story:

  • A man was murdered yesterday in a locked room in his own house to which nobody else had a key.
  • He was shot twice in the head.
  • Another man was found moments after the murder holding a gun that had recently been fired twice. The bullets that killed the first man were definitely from this gun.
  • The two men had been heard arguing fiercely about a large sum of money just moments before the shots were fired.

Here is a hypothesis: after reading these facts in a newspaper (kids, it’s like an iPad made entirely of paper), you would conclude at about a 99.9% level of certainty that the man found with the smoking gun is the murderer.

However, here is another hypothesis:  if you were reading these facts in a mystery novel, you would conclude, at almost the same level of probability, that the man holding the gun is not the murderer. That’s because in life, the person who almost certainly did it is usually the person who did it.  In mystery novels, however, the person who clearly did it is the only person we can know for sure didn’t do it.

We all know this intuitively, and most of us wouldn’t need to have the story labeled “Newspaper’ or “Mystery novel.” We could tell just by reading a paragraph or two what kind of story it was. But it would be almost impossible to explain it to a Martian anthropologist who had no understanding of genre–and it would be almost as difficult to explain it to the archeologist in 5,000 years who dug up a mystery novel but did not understand what kind of thing it was. People within a culture understand how common genre conventions work, even though it is one of the most difficult things in the world to explain to someone on the outside.

Job and Genre
Job is a difficult text, and it is several kinds of difficult at once. Genre is a big reason for this. It contains at least three very specific genres, all of which are literary rather than historical. These genres are clearly marked as such, but because it is not our culture, we cannot recognize these markers without a lot of study. And the standard LDS translation–the King James Version of the Bible–eliminates the distinction between the one prose and two poetry genres that constitute Job.

Here are the three genres of Job:

  • Chapters 1 and 2, along with with everything but the first 6 verses of Chapter 42, constitutes a brief prose tale, similar to what we would call a “fairy tale.” It begins with the Hebrew equivalent of “Once upon a time” and tells a story that nobody in the Ancient Near East would have thought to take as a historical fact. In fact, this tale is the oldest part of Job and came very likely from Ancient Persia–the empire that conquered Babylon and permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem.
  • Most of the rest of book is a very specific kind of poem called a “Wisdom Dialogue.” This literary form bears some resemblance to the Socratic Dialogues written in Ancient Greece at about the same time that Job was written in the Near East. Wisdom Dialogues were common in Babylon, Egypt, and other Ancient cultures. Like Socratic Dialogues, they involve multiple characters discoursing on a topic. But while Socrates always knew what he thought and brought everyone there at the end, the participants in Wisdom Dialogues were equally matched–and they all contribute to the final resolution.The Wisdom Dialogue was inserted after the prose tale for a very specific reason. The poet who wrote the dialogue believed that the tale got its own moral wrong. The tale shows Job not complaining and being rewarded by God at the end. The Wisdom Dialogue/poem, on the other hand, shows Job complaining against God bitterly and demanding that the Lord explain why he is suffering. The major interlocutors try to argue God’s case, but each time they do, Job rebuts them. And in the end, God appears to tell us that they were all wrong (but the Comforters were wronger).
  • Chapter 28 is a hymn. It is generally called the “Hymn to Wisdom,” and it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. It could have gone just as easily in the Psalms or the Proverbs as in Job. The Hymn to Wisdom gives a different perspective on wisdom than either Job or his comforters.

Poetry as Revelation
The interaction between these three very different kinds of texts produces some of the best poetry in the Bible, and as I have argued, the greatest single poem in the ancient world. It touches on some of the most important questions that humans ask about themselves, the universe, and the divine. I am not going to try to explain all of this in a single blog post (did I mention that I wrote a book that tries to explain it all?)

But I do want to make one point here as forcefully as I have ever tried to say anything: scriptural revelation comes when God inspires a human writer to speak eternal truths. There is absolutely no reason that these truths have to come in the genres of history and journalism (neither of which existed when Job was written). Simply recording facts does not produce truth. And some of the truest things I know are novels, plays, and poems.

We all know this intuitively when it comes to our own culture. When a general authority in Conference quotes Hamlet, or Pride and Prejudice, or The Little Engine that Could, we don’t ever have to wonder whether or not these were historical works. We know that prophets can create revelation by quoting stories and drawing lessons from them. We even know enough about genre conventions in the New Testament that we can talk about the Good Samaritan without demanding that there actually was one.

What we need to understand when we read Job is that there are clear genre markers indicating that we should not take its various literary element as history–just as clear as a story that begins “once upon a time” or describes talking trains. But we no longer live in, or understand the cultures that produced these stories, so we miss the genre markers and default to the genre of history because that is what we tend to associate the most with the Old Testament.

In closing, I testify that I know that poems are true. So are stories, fables, novels, parables, plays, and other works of literature that described things that never happened. God inspires poets at least as often as he inspires historians, and the truth of literature does not depend on historical accuracy. The human imagination is holy, and the products of that imagine are sacred. And when they combine with God’s light, the holy and sacred products of our imagination, and our profound longing for meaning, become scripture. Job is the proof.

Comments

  1. legaleagle1961 says:

    There’s just one problem with your theory: God himself compared Joseph Smith to Job in Doctrine and Covenants 121:9. God will not logically compare a real person’s suffering and trials to those of a fictional character, especially not as part of a discourse TO the real person. The mind cannot realistically equate real and unreal things. That to me is clear evidence that Job was also a real person and really did experience what he experienced, despite perhaps a bit of literary embellishment on the part of the writer.

  2. Michael Austin says:

    legaleagle,

    This is certainly Keith Meservy’s position, which has been reprinted in the LDS Institute Manual (though not as official doctrine, and, in fact, with plenty of qualifications that it is a personal opinion).

    There are a number of reasons that I am not convinced by this argument: we do not know what Joseph Smith may have known about Job, for example, and even if Job was a real person, the D&C text tells us no more than that he suffered. It does not verify anything else in the story.

    But the greatest objection that I have to the position is the statement, “God will not logically compare a real person’s suffering and trials to those of a fictional character, especially not as part of a discourse TO the real person.” This is exactly the sort of statement that Job and his comforters make throughout the text. They all imagine that they know how God thinks, and they argue, in effect, that God can never do things that THEY find illogical.”

    Perhaps the most important point that the Book of Job (whoever wrote it) makes is that God is not bound by what we consider logical.

  3. legaleagle1961, The fact is that people often compare a real person and his/her trials to those of fictional characters. They do it because it can be illuminating to those who know the stories in which those fictional characters are embedded. It is a useful teaching and introspection method. It is not illogical to make such comparisons. It is true, however, that for some people (and not others) the fictional nature of one side of the comparison reduces the emotional impact of the comparison. For me, it does not. It would be more accurate, I think, to say that the D&C verse you cite is clear emotional evidence to you (and to my wife) of Job’s being a real person, but for me and some others it is no evidence either way on the subject. Logic has little or nothing to do with it unless you begin from the assumption that God would not make literary references, in which case you have assumed the conclusion and made no logical argument.

    On literary references in the D&C, I’ve occasionally been intrigued with the Lord’s quoting the Song of Solomon, applying its language to the Church. The JST states “The Songs of Solomon are not inspired writings” (quoted in Bible Dictionary). Why is it that God cannot be permitted to teach using literature that may not be history?

  4. We discussed Job in my History of Civilization class many years ago at BYU, and the professor tried to impress upon our minds that the story of Job was probably a myth, and as such, it was MORE true than other stories from the Old Testament. This totally changed the way I read the scriptures.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    legaleagle1961, why would God not compare a real person to a fictional person if He knew Joseph knew of the story of Job and the message therein? I don’t see any problem in that. Should we not try to emulate the Good Samaritan because he was fictional? A story told to make a point.

  6. You have opened the door for the Book of Mormon being both true and a work of 19th century literature.

  7. Mike, I love (and will almost certainly steal) your “genre matters” example; I was planning on talking about genre mattering in a more vague way (screenshot of Netflix, discussing how we approach action comedies differently from historical dramas), but I like the tangibility of your murder novel. Thanks! (Also, everything else was excellent, too!)

  8. Eagle, that’s an assumption I don’t find justifiable either in a modern context or a second-temple Jewish one, that,is, Jesus’ context. I address this a bit with regards to Jonah, here.
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/oneeternalround/2010/09/jonah-the-insufficiency-of-the-new-testament-argument/

  9. Great discussion. “Scriptural revelation comes when God inspires a human writer to speak eternal truths.” I couldn’t agree more. Truth-outside-of-historical fact is something I’ve found many people in western culture/philosophy struggle with in general, and I’ve seen it create real problems for some members of the Church when they’re asked to consider, for instance, that Joseph Smith was simply inspired with the Book of Abraham, or re-translations of the Bible, or perhaps even some segments of the Book of Mormon, rather than literally translating it directly. The truth is we simply don’t know much about how revelation comes, except that it can come in several forms (or genres). (On a different note, Tim O’Brian gives one of the best nods I’ve seen to truth-outside-of-fact in The Things They Carried.) Thanks for the read.

  10. “What we need to understand when we read Job is that there are clear genre markers indicating that we should not take its various literary element as history”

    I’m curious as to what happens when you extend this notion across the board to Mormonism’s pillars.

    What are we to do when we identify clear “markers” that indicate that the stories of Jesus perhaps shouldn’t be read as historical? What are we to do when we identify “markers” that the Book of Mormon shouldn’t be read as historical? What are we to do when we identify “markers” that indicate that the concept of God viewed through a literal/historical lens?

  11. Thank you, Michael. I am currently re-reading Re-reading Job in preparation for teaching this lesson a week from Sunday.

  12. To me, if Job is not a historical person, then the book has lesser value to me as scripture. I get that it’s a poem, and it has some creative license with it, but if it’s a fictional poem it just doesn’t have the weight it would have otherwise.

  13. Thanks for this post.

    My experience has been that people who are unhappy at the news that the Book of Job is not historical tend to be disappointed that it is not what they wanted it to be. Of course, even the most sophisticated critics sometimes review the book that they wanted to read or the film that they wanted to see, not the one they were actually given. It is one of the most common errors in reacting to a work of art. It is also a common reaction to revelation.

    It is hard work to figure out what a piece of art–or a revelation–really is. Fortunately, when we do that work we often discover that the thing is far greater and more satisfying than what we thought we wanted. Job would not have survived this long if it were a hollow thing. It rewards the work.

  14. jader3rd: Why?

  15. jader3rd, not that the Book of Job is unique in this way, but, for me, if the behaviors it attributes to God vis-a-vis Satan, Job, and Job’s family members, were taken as factual, it just couldn’t bear the weight it does otherwise. I suspect it’s of little concern to God [or Joseph or Job :) ] which way you or I take it. I’m with Michael on this: ” the question of whether or not [Job] was a real person is perhaps the least interesting and least important” thing about the book.

  16. If Job was real, how did he find out about God and Satan having a contest over who could torture him more? If that part is true, that would make me very concerned about God’s dealings with human beings.

  17. Left Field says:

    To me, the break between prose and poetry in Job is abrupt and unmistakable, even in the KJV.

    I remember Neal A. Maxwell once arguing in conference that Job was historical because the Lord referenced him in the Doctrine and Covenants. Even when he said it, my first thought was that it made no sense. People are compared to fictional characters all the time. Arguably, Jesus did it every time he told a parable.

  18. Comparisons between real people and fictional characters are very common and completely legitimate. As a father, I use them all the time with my children. Here’s one simple example.

    ‘Casey at the bat’ is a fictional story of a baseball player who, in his pride and vanity, lets two pitches go past for strikes without trying to hit them. He then gives his all on the third pitch, but misses, and loses the game. Mudville cries.

    Me to child: Don’t be like Casey. Don’t be prideful and waste your opportunities out of overconfidence that you’ll come through at the last minute. Study hard now rather than cram for exams the night before. Apply for the job/college now rather than wait until the deadline. Don’t just trust that because you’re smart and have had success before that you’ll be able to pull off a hit in the bottom of the ninth on an 0-2 count with ‘Flynn a huggin third.’ Just like Casey, you may leave Flynn stranded.

    In this example (which I’ve actually used), my children are not confused by the fictional nature of the story. They understand the moral principle even tough Casey and Mudville are not real. In fact, particularly for younger children, fictional tales can be more ‘real’ and understandable than historical event.

    Job’s story has merit and significance even if its a fiction.

  19. Knowledge is knowing whether or not Job was a real person. Wisdom is knowing that it doesn’t matter whether or not Job was a real person.

  20. You had me at “why poetry is true.” I love everything about your take on Job and on literature.

  21. I’m also currently re-reading Job (and outlining sans any help, just to see how well I can re-state the various arguments accurately) and love this post.

    Perhaps a bit off topic, but the thing I wonder at those that find a fictional Job disappointing how do you then approach the rest of scripture? In changing actual life and/or life experiences into stories, there is always something lost / something added / something changed / something dramatized. Is it your belief that scriptures are exempt from this?

    For a very interesting look at how the human brain ‘remembers’ it’s and it’s own experiences in fits and starts and lack of accuracy google ‘Revisionish History Podcast’ – ‘Free Brian Williams episode.’ (http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/24-free-brian-williams) For me, this is the starting point for understanding stories based on ‘it really happened.’ So for me, the line between fiction and non is always rather blurry to begin with, especially the further we move from the realm of academics.

  22. I guess it’s because I get more meaning from scripture when it’s a record of man’s dealings with God. If the book of Job is pure fiction then it is of lesser value than something that actually happened. If it is fiction, perhaps it wasn’t even inspired. I can get moral lessons from stories that start with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” but those will have less weight than a record of a prophet doing something because of communication he had from God.
    Think about the book “The Life of Pi” and why does it go through all that effort at the beginning of the book to convince you that this actually happened to person that the author is supposedly interviewing.
    Maybe its the skepticism drilled into me from the scientific method. We’re more likely to figure out how things actually work through experience, than through just thinking about it. What was known as “truth” pre scientific method, ended up getting tossed out, regardless of how well thought out and convincing it was.
    I want my scripture to be more based in reality, because that’s more likely to affect my life, than some creative outlet that somebody had one day. I want to know more how God has actually interacted with man, than how man thinks God is interacting with him.
    Can parables, analogies and works of fiction teach truth? Yes. But stretched too far and they all have a breaking point. That’s why it’s important to understand them for what they are.

  23. alecthought says:

    “Chapters 1 and 2, along with with the first 6 verses of Chapter 42, constitutes a brief prose tale…”

    Pretty sure that should be, “…along with all but the first 6 verses…”

    I also re-skimmed your book to prepare to teach this week. Thanks so much!

  24. Interesting that you mention The Life of Pi; I personally think one of the main arguments of the book (exaggerated in the intereview at the end) is that it ford t matter if it “really” happened or not. No matter what the facts are, it’s the story you choose to believe that counts and has the most impact.

  25. MC Piddle says:

    Nearly all characters in ancient scripture are either fully fictional or, at best, heavily fictionalized. It’s strange that Job—neither the most, nor least, obvious case of that—gets such attention in the LDS community. (Similarly, it’s odd that critics within and outside the Church get so fixated on the Book of Abraham, when it’s no less ahistorical than the Apocalypse of Abraham or Genesis.)

  26. jader3rd –

    I can see that perspective. I think I agree that there is something uniquely powerful about a direct interaction between God and people.

    Perhaps I’m skeptical of taking reported events of interaction with God at entirely face value though. Which isn’t to say that I don’t take them at face value in the sense of the person being honest about reporting their own understanding. But someone’s ‘own understanding’ generally has a good chunk of fable thrown in along with the truth, based on how memory works. And that’s without using personal experience to prove a point (err… I may have moved from the scriptures to how the internet works with that last bit…)

  27. Good stuff. For what it’s worth, I would be rereading Rereading Job right now if it were my turn to teach this coming Sunday.

    On the other hand, the OP seems like a lot of fuss over an obvious point. I guess I missed that Mormon message that Job was a real person or that it mattered.

    Further:
    (a) It would be very disturbing if Job were a real person.
    (b) I have no sense–it makes no sense to me–that a description of an actual event would be any more reliable or “truthful” or repeatable than a story or poem. Senses are flawed. Memory is flawed. There are multiple versions of the First Vision. Witnesses seldom tell it the same way twice, without rehearsal.
    (c) My general experience is that a carefully crafted, revised, refined, poem or story or play, by an “inspired” writer trying to tell a truth, is likely more reliable, more settled and consistent and likely to deliver on the intended and desired message, than any one telling of an actual experience.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    If anyone has not already, you really need to read Michael’s Job book. This post gives you a bit of a taste for the good stuff you’ll find there.

    For those preparing lessons, you might find this old post of mine useful:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2010/08/23/i-know-that-my-redeemer-liveth/

  29. jader3rd: do you feel the same way about the parables of Jesus or the allegory of olive trees in Jacob 5, for example? Are those stories of lesser value than, say, the story of the battle of Jericho because they are fiction?

  30. Not a Cougar says:

    jader3rd isn’t alone. For me, if plucks some of the same chords that thinking about the historicity of the Book of Mormon does.

  31. Story or not, the older I get the less tolerant I feel towards the treatment of Job’s wife, children and servants, as property akin to all the other property he looses. Inside I’m screaming, never mind about Job, at least he is still alive. What about his wife, children and servants. They are all dead! Four years ago I spent the lesson sitting in the car as I just couldn’t stomach it any more. Not looking forward to this week’s lesson.

  32. Michael Austin says:

    “What about his wife, children and servants. They are all dead! Four years ago I spent the lesson sitting in the car as I just couldn’t stomach it any more. Not looking forward to this week’s lesson.”

    For what its worth, the Job poet feels exactly the same way. The simplistic fairy tale that frames the poem has his wife and children dying and then Job being rewarded with new ones at the end. This was likely a fairy tale that the Jews learned from the Persians (the character called “the satan” in the frame is modeled on a clear Persian type). The poet who crafted the main portion of Job believed that this fairy tale was destructive and communicated all of the wrong things about God. Understanding that Job consists of a tale and a poem that rejects the assumptions of the tale is extremely important to understanding what exactly it is that Job means.

    FWIW, here is something I wrote several years after I wrote the book about Job’s children. It is a fictional dialogue between Job and Abraham built around the question of sacrificing children to God’s whims. It appeared in Julie Smith’s Book As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture and was then published in the online magazine Meridian

    https://ldsmag.com/what-the-voices-of-scripture-can-teach-us-especially-when-they-dont-agree/

  33. @JKC, the important part is that it is Jesus teaching the parable and a prophet is attributed to the allegory in Jacob 5, and in both cases they’re presented as nothing but parables/allegories. The comparison would be if in the book of Mark he threw in a random parable, without saying who it came from. We might read that as something which was actually happening to one of Mark’s peers. So given that it’s recorded as someone having authority letting us know that they’re telling a short story to make a point, it’s easier to get from it what we’re supposed to get from it. You would probably ingest a passage of scripture differently if Jesus started with “The other day a friend of mine…” vs “There once was a woman…”
    There’s Job being fictional, Job being real but a lot of creative license was taken with the retelling, and there’s Job being an accurate retelling of something that happened. If the latter is true that really shakes some doctrinal understanding of God’s relationship with Satan. I guess I want to know which it is.

  34. Michael Austin says:

    @jader3rd,

    Even if we assume that there was a Job and a portion of his experiences were real, we still have to decide which ones. The frame tale contains one version of Job’s actions, and the long poem contains another. And the two versions are mutually exclusive. If the frame tale in which God and the satan (not a figure of ultimate evil in the tale, but a court functionary in the heavenly court) get together is the true version, then the Job of the poem is false. If the Job of the poem is the true version, then the Job of the tale is false. These stories directly contradict each other and were designed to directly contradict each other.

  35. Not trying to be a critic says:

    From my perspective, Job has a deeper meaning if you’ve been through deep suffering. It is a poetic parable if you will. It supplicates the sufferer.

    When read in that context, it will reveal much deeper spiritual truths.

  36. My problem, before I read “Re-reading Job”, was that I did not know enough about the middle part of the book at all. All I really knew about Job was the outer fairly tale, and of course D&C reference to him to comfort JS. When I learned about the conflict and drama that actually takes place in the Book of Job I came face to face with some of the most challenging arguments that face mankind with respect to suffering and blessings. It was both an excruciating and exhilarating all at the same time. I know its true because it enlarged my soul! If I hadn’t wrestled with the actual text then I could easily have seen myself arguing over whether Job is real or not.

  37. Jader3rd –

    I like your argument about there being a difference when Jesus uses artistry, but I’m unsure how to reconcile that with the path the scriptures took to get to us. Since there was no modern recording devices to capture every word/nuance of his teachings, we are dependent on men to pass along the stories he told through their own recollections, and sometimes passed orally one person to the next before they were written down. Right? I guess I see that as destroying any literalness to quotes from him in the N.T.

  38. Nathan K.

    That feels like a disparate argument: the writer(s) of the book of Job never claimed to be writing history about a factual person. But Joseph Smith did, in fact, claim that the Book of Mormon was an ancient record created by prophets in the Americas, and translated by the power of God.

    You could make some kind of argument that (1) Joseph Smith was a charlatan and (2) God still spoke through him, but it sounds icky to me. I accept that many ancient scriptures were intended as fables, or contained some exaggeration, but that the texts were accepted as such. There’s a decent gulf between colorful storytelling and outright fraud.

    I think you could give plenty of literary license to Mormon, Moroni, et al to fudge historical details, but to say it was a fabrication but also pat Mormons on the head and draw inspiration from the book, just seems patronizing.

  39. Great post Michael.
    Nathan K and Ubruni’s comments introduce a very slippery slope to me in trying to apply genre to the BOM, which maybe you’d care to comment on. Joseph Smith makes very similar claims about the record of Abraham. And yet the way I reconcile the Book of Abraham with the now known translation of its Egyptian characters requires me to see it as new revelation through an old text and not a direct translation of the characters, despite what Joseph himself said (unless you believe he had a different set of papyri altogether—which doesn’t seem to jive because he also refers to the facsimiles accompanying the text.). Also you have BOM writers referring to the Tower of Babel as historical. Weren’t they contemporary enough to understand that story’s culture and genres?

  40. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, while ranking the spiritual worth of the books of the Old Testament: “Job is for people who like the book of Job.”

  41. Oh, is that what he was ranking?
    I might prefer BCC’s authoritative rankings. When will Steve give us another?

  42. jader3rd: In that case it sounds like your issue with Job is not with the possibility that it is fictional, but the fact that it’s fictional nature isn’t acknowledged clearly enough up front in the text. But I think that’s a function of reading it in translations thousands of years later without the contextual knowledge that the audiences would have had at the time it was written (and re-written). If I start a story “once upon a time,” every native English speaker knows what follows is fiction, or at least highly fictionalized, because that’s a cultural sign for fiction. But a ESL speaker may not catch that and think the story is meant to be a history. I’m not an expert in the ancient near east but those who are say that Job has these cultural signs of being fiction. That makes a lot of sense to me, given that the story itself contains some pretty implausible things.

  43. If fiction, the other thing which would help would be author attribution. Similar to Christ’s parables; what really is going to get to me ponder and analyze them is the authority of the author. I still study Greek, Roman and other ancient myths, and find value in them, but they don’t hold the same authority as a section of the Doctrine and Covenants where a revelation has been transcribed. If Job was titled “Job, a Story by Isaiah” that would really help me to know how to tackle it.
    It’s not that fictional things can’t have worth; it’s that in the context of scripture I value actual interactions between God and man to have a higher value than a fictional tale.
    So I do find “but was Job a real person” to be the highest order question about the book, and all others follow that.

  44. Ryan Mullen says:

    Given the choice, I think we’d all want more information on whether Job was a real person, a biography of the Job poet(s), or a treatment of the textual and cultural origins of the Job frame tale from contemporary sources. But since we can’t have any of that, and all we have to go on is the modern Book of Job text–which is a clearly structured and polished work of literature–then I can see the point the OP makes, that asking if Job is a real person is among the least important and least interesting questions we can ask *of the text*.

  45. jader3rd: That’s fascinating. See to me, the reason that Greek or Roman myths don’t have the same authority as the revelations in the D&C is because they are not part of the scriptural canon, not because they’re anonymous. The fact that is it canonized (absent some statement like Joseph Smith saying the Song of Songs isn’t inspired) is to me enough to treat it as presumptively authoritative, and of great scriptural value. The fact that the D&C and the New Testament both refer to it only strengthens that presumption. Job isn’t a “reliable” text exactly, but speaking from my own experience only, I get at least as much value from working through a difficult text like Job as I do from revelations dictated in the voice of God himself, and the fictional/historical nature of Job himself doesn’t really play any role in that.

  46. “the question of whether or not he was a real person is perhaps the least interesting and least important”

    And yet, most LDS believers do make that an issue. In fact the whole of Mormonism is based on there actually being ancient Hebrews/Jews who came to the Americas in 600 BCE and who actually saw Jesus. When LDS leaders talk about truth, the mostly mean historical (i.e., ancient American Jews saw Jesus) and actual (Jesus resurrected and he and God the Father have bodies of flesh and bones just as mortal humans do) truth, not axiomatic/metaphorical truth.

  47. Martin, it’s remarkable that you know what most Mormons believe about the historicity of Job.

    And let’s assume that the Book of Mormon being a historical document is foundational to Mormonism. (It’s not, but let’s assume it is.) That has nothing to do with the historicity or not of Job. Even the most uncharitable reading of Mormonism has to grant that the genre of on book of scripture has limited (i.e., no) bearing on the genre of another.

  48. Ben, I like your analogy of scripture as a library, with books in a variety of genres. What is confusing to me is the Book of Ether. You have a reference to the Tower of Babel etc which I equate, historicity speaking, to the story of Noah’s ark. You could say that the BOM writers didn’t have that nuance and so assumed it was historical. But then if it isn’t, they report finding and translating actual 24 plates and meeting up with an actual Coriantumr. Seems like a hard case to apply genre to.

  49. Sam Brunson,

    The OP starts out by noting just how much other LDS believers want to know whether or not Job was a real person, which suggests that the question of the historicity of the Bible stories is at the front of many LDS believers’ minds. For a group of people who obsess so much about the historicity of other aspects of their religious truth claims so much, why should this surprise anyone?

    “let’s assume that the Book of Mormon being a historical document is foundational to Mormonism (It’s not, but let’s assume it is.)”

    You’re delusional. One of the most commonly uttered statements in an LDS believer testimony is the statement “I know the Book of Mormon is true.” The Book of Mormon and its truthfulness is the main focal point of the first LDS missionary interaction with non-LDS. You’re here to tell me that the LDS believers mean true in some special metaphorical way when they say true? No, they mean that ancient American Jews actually saw Jesus. The whole of Mormonism is founded on the idea that Joseph Smith is a prophet and that evidence for this is his translation of another testament of Jesus Christ in the Americas 2000 years ago.

  50. Bro B., genre isn’t the simple de-historicizing of texts traditionally held to be historical.
    Book of Mormon authors got their knowledge of the past like any other human and made assumptions about it. I’ve often tried to help this go down with a spoonful of sugar from E. Widtsoe.

    “When inspired writers deal with historical incidents they relate that which they have seen or that which may have been told them, unless indeed the past is opened to them by revelation.” Elder John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, (1960): 127.

    As to Ether, it’s pretty complicated. As a friend put it, “the Book of Ether is Joseph Smith’s Translation of Moroni’s Abridgement and Commentary of Mosiah’s Translation of Ether’s Writings and Composition of the Early Written and Oral Traditions of 2000+ years of the Jaredites.”
    Between that production history (with lots of opportunity for anachronistic editorial contamination), the human epistemology of the authors, the fact that Babel isn’t named, and that there’s an ancient Mesopotamian fragmentary story often related to the Tower of Babel, I don’t find it terribly problematic.

  51. I find it useful that a considerable number of Jewish Rabbis have traditionally considered Job to be a real person. Paradoxically, much of the quibble above with whether or not he was real misses the transcendental human question. The question is whether God cares for our real human suffering in a tangible way.

    I have always felt that Job was real in the context that God would care enough to give us a real story about a real human to that end. A precursor to the story of Jesus. In the case of Joseph Smith, for example, this would be a call of something more than just mythos or idea. “You are not yet a Job.” I feel ya’, bruh. This is REAL PAIN. Look deeper to Jesus, in fact—another reality—who was the lowest of low.

  52. Ben S. thank you. I wanted that “Joseph Smith . . .Moroni . . Mosiah . . .Ether . . . tradition . . . Jaredite” line and didn’t remember where to find it.

  53. A late comment: From my studies, genres are cultural artefacts reflecting the discourse conventions of rhetorical communities. Encoding events in the generic forms claimed in the opinion piece, does not preclude them from reflecting historical events and individuals via a particular rhetorical form. Histories, after all, are constructions.
    Rhetorical communities employ genres to perform social functions – as we are removed from the time and place of text construction, we can only assume that the writers have been moved to use forms that will impose ‘intelligibility’ and ‘longevity’ on the account being rendered.
    To this end, it seems to me that framing the genres nominated above, is the macro-genre of narration –
    It appears to me that Job is essentially a dialogic ‘narrative’ in a form designed to provide for more than literal readings, but this doesn’t mean that Job wasn’t real or that the accounts in the text are mutually exclusive: rather each performs a particular truth function – all we need to do is to look to a higher heaven than the one being assumed to see how the genre mix is more than a true/false choice.

  54. Here’s the thing . . .
    If I read Michael Austin’s way, I’m likely to end the lesson with “[God] Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” and “[Job] I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
    If I read the Mormon traditional way, I’m likely to end the lesson with “So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning.”
    Which is going to win me the most points in popular teacher balloting?

  55. Still, “the question of whether or not he was a real person is perhaps the least interesting.” Real person status alone would tell us exactly nothing about whether the events described in the book really took place or, if they did, whether they are accurately described. In some [few?] wards, Chris might win points in popular teacher balloting by posing the questions for thought whether that narrative portrays a god who could be the same as the one we worship (you know — children and millstones and love and all that); if so, what the story tells us about that god; if not, what the story tells us at all. Does the narrative tell us anything true about how God deals with individuals? Is the [whimsical] loss of life (from Job’s viewpoint or his first family members’ viewpoint) somehow made up for by Job’s having another family? [Be careful with that one if you have any parent present who has lost a child.] What has Job to repent of? Is the god portrayed in the narrative worth worshiping? Why?
    At least some in my class appreciate being asked to think about the scriptures in more than what might be “the Mormon traditional way.”

  56. JR: For ears that are ready to hear.
    Watch out for the Teacher’s Manual that suggests a last section titled “After Job has faithfully endured his trials, the Lord blesses him.”

  57. Thanks, Chris. In years of teaching the GD class, no one [not even bishopric members or visiting stake leaders] has ever complained when I simply ignored the Teacher’s Manual beyond its suggestions as to what scriptures to study. I guess I (and maybe my class) have been lucky.

  58. Judging by two Sunday School classes today, BCC needs to improve on its circulation or profile.

  59. Jesus’s parables are stories he made up to teach true principles. The allegory of the tame and wild olive trees is just that–an allegory. Aesop’s fables are “true.” To me, Job’s story makes absolutely no sense if it’s historical: God entirely shielding a person from struggle and suffering? God and Satan hangin’ out in a kind of Mount Olympus setting, talking shop, making bets on people’s lives? Then, after the experiment is over, Job is materially blessed more than ever? But as a fictional framing device for a theological verse drama, it works perfectly.

    And as poetry (which none of us can truly grasp unless we’re experiencing it in our native ancient Hebrew, but let’s pretend that we can), it penetrates our consciousness in ways that general-conference-style prose cannot, via the imagery, the figurative language, and the music–the melodies and rhythms of words. Ariel’s Song (“Full fathom five thy father lies”) was stuck in my brain for many years, having wormed its way in, word for word, almost without my trying to memorize it, because of the infectious alliteration, rhythms, rhymes, and imagery, not to mention the subject matter. Then, when my father died, it’s like the poem stood up and said, “Here I am. I’ve been waiting here for you, for this moment.” Mundane, idiomatic, day-to-day prose doesn’t do that.

    I apologize for merely pulling this out of Wikipedia: At Neal A. Maxwell’s funeral, Gordon B. Hinckley said, “I know of no other man who spoke in such an interesting and distinct manner. His genius was the product of diligence. He was a perfectionist determined to exact from every phrase and sentence vivid imagery that brought the gospel to life. Each talk was a masterpiece . . . I think we shall not see one like him again.”

    Elder Maxwell’s efforts to poeticize his sermons “brought the gospel to life” in a way that Pres. Hinckley himself doubted we’d see again. Ouch.

    “. . . Look at / what passes for the new. / You will not find it there, but in / despised poems.
    It is difficult / to get the news from poems, / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” (from “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower,” by William Carlos Williams)

  60. David Stringfellow says:

    This thread gives me so much hope for understanding the meaning of the gospel with a new curriculum.

    I really hope Job makes it into the new curriculum and pedagogy for Sunday School / Study in 3 years! Yesterday, our teacher emphatically proclaimed that Job was a real person based on the last paragraph of the manual within the first minute of the lesson (she was surprised and unaware it was even a possibility). I taught the lesson 4 years ago, with a different mix of convictions. I am currently my Stake’s Sunday School President and I mildly pointed out the mundane fact that it was a relatively unimportant question (Job’s historical reality) given our current information (it was unimportant enough that I didn’t directly contradict this teacher – that would violate other truths given my love and respect for this wonderful sister). I did interject a few points many have made above about the value of poetry, the truth communicated via story (even the teacher rejected the God/Satan pow-wow 30 seconds after proclaiming Job’s historicity) and the beautiful complexity and theophany we can find as we grapple with our own trials of life with one another. We had a wonderful and spiritual lesson from the participation of a dozen+ members of my Ward.

    We are flexible creatures that can absorb truth without being exclusively ideologue, fundamentalist, deconstructionist, academic, or radical. The cognitive attitude of a saint is a diverse ecosystem.

    I use a hammer to hit nails – I only use a mouse functionally with my computer, I don’t expect it to pour cement for my driveway… tools and more tools, I will take all we are given or that we can invent…

  61. annalisawiggins says:

    I really appreciate this. I have often felt Job read something like a Greek tragedy (though not quite Greek). I love exploring how genre and culture helps us to understand scripture. Perhaps it bothers some to think that this could be fiction, but as someone who has devoted so much of my education to study literature, I have found truths in art and literature that have turned me to God, I think we can make space for such art to exist in our scripture. I have had such beautiful principles of the gospel seared into my heart through experiences I’ve had with literature and art. Jesus often taught through parables, which were also fictional but supported with true principles. I don’t see why it can’t be true elsewhere, even some of the “best books.”

    (My ward is behind. Just talking abt Job today.)